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September 23, 2017

Belleville News-Democrat

Illinois lawmakers quitting before voters get to fire them

Sometimes chickens come home to roost. Sometimes they fly the coop.

There are 25 Illinois state lawmakers getting out, and 19 of them voted for saddling taxpayers with the 32-percent income tax increase that no one believes really fixed anything.

Between when Gov. Bruce Rauner was inaugurated and by the time the next legislature takes office, 36 percent of the Illinois House and 25 percent of the Illinois Senate will have turned over.

The upside of dysfunction seems to be that if you allow a two-year budget impasse, if you let your deadbeat pile of bills grow from $6.6 billion in 2014 to $16 billion today, and if you ignore pension obligations until they are in a $130 billion hole, then all that will lead to frustration. In fact, it leads to enough frustration to make you want to get out.

Trouble is, mostly the wrong folks are getting out. The King of Illinois will remain. State Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, is one of those leaving.

To the good, Signal Hill Elementary’s favorite parent, state Sen. James Clayborne, is quitting. The No. 2 Democrat in the Illinois Senate decided it is time to go, leaving behind a history of “no comments,” state jobs for close female friends, constituent disdain and head-nodding votes including for that tax hike.

McCarter says the exodus is another argument for term limits. Those 25 departees on average hit the 9-year minimum for a legislative pension.

State lawmakers did accept pay for two years even when they weren’t doing their jobs to pass a budget, much less a balanced budget. But at least they were consistent in underfunding their own pension system. It has just 13 percent of the needed funds.

McCarter says if lawmaker terms were limited it would help ensure people were in Springfield to get something done and get out, not to put in their nine and get paid for life.

Lawmakers know 2018 elections will be tough. When 15 House Republicans crossed over to vote for the income tax hike, Illinois Republican chairman Tim Schneider said he was “confident voters will hold those politicians accountable for choosing Mike Madigan over the people of Illinois.”

Very likely, but they seem to be eliminating themselves before voters do.


September 24, 2017

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Free speech for me … and thee

Too many people either don’t know or don’t care about people’s rights to express themselves as they see fit.

The Urbana police should have known better.

Because they didn’t, Bryton Mellott is $15,000 richer. It’s the best and easiest money he’ll ever make.

Mellott’s lawyers did even better, collecting $20,000 for work they did in a legal case that was impossible to lose.

For those who don’t recall — or are trying to forget — Mellott caused a ruckus on July 4, 2016.

To express his disgust and disdain for his country, he posted on Facebook a picture of himself burning the American flag. It generated an angry response, creating concerns about both his personal safety and the safety of fellow employees and customers at his workplace.

To make a long story short, Urbana police officers, relying on an inarguably unconstitutional statute, unlawfully arrested Mellott and detained him for five hours on charges of flag burning.

There’s a lesson here, one that cuts both ways in the incessant battle between those on the political left and right.

It’s all about an individual’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

People are free to disagree with Mellott’s viewpoint, particularly the manner in which he expressed it. But that’s as far as it goes.

Mellott has and had an absolute right to symbolically express whatever viewpoint he wishes by burning the flag. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that expression of free-speech rights in a 1989 decision.

Free speech, particularly on college campuses, is getting a lot of attention these days, mostly because many people not only don’t understand the concept but sharply disagree with it.

So-called Antifa members, in fact, think it’s their duty to physically assault those who express views they do not share. Faces covered with masks and sometimes armed with clubs, they attack those they view as fascists in communities across the country.

The First Amendment exists to protect individuals who utter unpopular speech, characterized by some these days as “hate speech.”

Those who utter non-controversial speech don’t need protection — it’s the speech of those who dissent from the majority that needs protection.

But it’s of a piece with the long-held view of many Americans — free speech for me, but not for thee.

Everyone is entitled to have their say. Everyone is not required to listen to someone having their say, and they’re certainly free to disagree.

Mellott said he posted the picture of the burning flag “to address the issue of violence brought against members of my queer community and against every community considered to be ‘other.'”

It was not exactly a well-thought-out protest against violence. But those who exercise their free-speech rights — like those who oppose others’ free-speech rights — often emphasize blind emotion, rather than clarity of purpose, in their demonstrations.

That’s their privilege in this country. Those who disagree, whatever their political perspective, need to remember that and pay the appropriate respect to a venerated American tradition.


September 20, 2017

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

‘Toxic environment’ must leave Springfield in order to succeed

The voluntary exodus of lawmakers from the Illinois General Assembly is a telling symptom of the dysfunction that grips Springfield.

For years, members of the General Assembly have turned a blind eye to district maps that are illogical to the point of resembling Rorschach tests. Representatives and senators have resorted to constant campaigning to maintain their seats.

Now, as detailed in an Associated Press story this week, lawmakers are heading to the exits like students heading to Florida on spring break. The AP reported about 15 percent of the General Assembly have either resigned or announced they won’t seek re-election.

That number ticked up slightly Tuesday when John Cavaletto, R-Salem, announced he won’t seek a sixth term. Earlier his summer, Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Eldorado, citing health concerns, announced his resignation from the House. His cousin, Natalie Phelps Finnie, was appointed to serve the remainder of his term.

Another telling symptom of dysfunction, the legislators fleeing Springfield aren’t all Republicans tired of being the minority. Democrats are also calling it quits.

The most telling commentary regarding the exit came from Rep. Steve Anderson, a Geneva Republican.

“There is a toxic environment,” he said. “People seem to not be able to get along, even outside of the Capitol. That’s not a good environment, and that’s not an environment I want to be a part of.”

That sentiment is completely understandable. Most adults have experienced a dysfunctional workplace. The only reason to endure such misery is if a person believes strongly in his or her accomplishments.

Since we’re talking about the Illinois General Assembly, the last statement is obviously a non-starter. Illinois has just emerged from a two-year budget crisis. Legislators had to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto just to get a budget in place. Before they had a chance to catch their breath, they dealt with a contentious school-funding battle.

In addition to dealing with dysfunction and polarization, legislators must deal with constituents who are less than pleased with their work.

Anderson reported receiving hate mail, and even death threats, after breaking with other Republicans and casting a vote to break the budget stalemate.

The problems with Illinois state government are readily apparent. Dissatisfied voters have been clamoring for a housecleaning for years. And, the case can be made that legislators willing to walk away from their offices aren’t likely to cure what ails Springfield.

Still, there is something bothersome about the number of legislators willing to turn their backs on Springfield. Turnover of this magnitude raises concerns about the loss of institutional knowledge.

Conversely, Springfield can use an infusion of new ideas, new approaches. But, this feels too much like treating the symptoms while the actual disease festers. A lot of new members will be seated in 2018, but the specter of the Mike Madigan, Speaker of the House, vs. Gov. Bruce Rauner feud will overshadow Springfield, unless, or course, Madigan is denied an 18th term.

Still, unless Illinois makes fundamental changes, it’s unlikely there will be great change in the short term.

Illinois must make some fundamental changes. Redrawing districts would be a good start. The tortured political map benefits no one – except the majority party.

And one other thing — we’d also like to see Illinois adopt new rules for replacing members who resign in mid-term. Phelps-Finnie is just the latest example, but the practice is essentially an Illinois tradition. In Southern Illinois alone, Dave Luechtefeld was appointed to fill Ralph Dunn’s senate term in 1995; Gary Forby was appointed to fill Larry Woolard’s senate term in 2003; John Bradley was appointed to fill Forby’s House seat; and Jerry Costello was appointed to fill Dan Reitz’s seat in 2011.

Currently, 31 of 118 members of the General Assembly were originally appointed to their seats. The people of Illinois deserve an elected, not an appointed, legislature.